A poll voted on by fans of the Mass Effect franchise recently unearthed the female model Bioware will be using to advertise the third installment. While giving fans the choice is certainly noble, I find it difficult to understand why the developer is taking these steps now, considering the trilogy ends next year. Players have the option of importing characters from previous games, so obviously there are quite a few living the adventure as a female Shepard.
We can get into the whole debate about the misrepresentation of genders in games or the sexuality of female characters for the sake of sales, but this issue is about Bioware's failure to realize the true potential of advertising both sexes immediately. From a business perspective, emphasizing the option to play as either male or female appeals to literally everyone, leaving prospective (female) consumers interested in the series feeling like Mass Effect is tailored to a male audience. From a gaming perspective, those unfamiliar with the games won't realize playing as a female yields different results and an entirely different play-through from the male counterpart.
The always-reliable Fox News Channel aired a segment regarding sexuality in the first Mass Effect and took issue with the sex scene involving Liara. Understandable for a conservative news channel. Cooper Lawrence, a psychologist, was brought on to argue against the scene, claiming kids would be mindlessly paralyzed by seeing it. From 2:13 forward, she claims the game objectifies women sexually, and that "it's a man in this game deciding who he wants to be with." Without playing the game, Cooper wouldn't have prerequisite knowledge that Commander Shepard can be both male and female because a male model of the character is the only one advertised. And that presumed sexism fueled controversy from parents, and probably helped sales. Bioware shot themselves in the foot, though the developer isn't necessarily in the good graces of everyone being a video game developer.
The bad press surrounding the cutscene obviously deterred many parents from letting their children purchase the game, but also left many women asking questions. Bioware could have easily avoided this by advertising a female counterpart to the well-known male character. Even for Mass Effect 2 would be remotely forgivable, but the inability of the developer to wait until the last game is just atrocious behaviour. It doesn't help anyone, especially the industry.
In a vote monitored by Bioware, fans had the option of picking the female Shepard from a possible six choices. The female character would receive her own trailer and a spot on the Collector's Edition of Mass Effect 3. The winner, choice number five, can be viewed here. A badass blonde bombshell, the fantasy of many a nerd who voted. Based on all of the choices, option five was clearly the best one fans would pick. The new FemShep (as the fans have named her) dominated the voting process by more than 18,000 votes. GayGamer.net editor Denis Farr told Kotaku the process was like a "beauty pageant," and through the article other journalists voice their displeasure as well.
It's hard to rail against Bioware because the Mass Effect franchise shows why gaming is truly remarkable as a medium. But sadly, some flaws outweigh the overwhelming positives, and the female Shepard speaks to how lost the industry is in not only appealing to women but developing them as well. I hope other developers are watching, because these mistakes will surely be made again, but we can all learn collectively as to what works and what doesn't.